Cale B.T., an Anglican with some Catholic sympathies, asked one of the better questions I’ve seen regarding John 6 and the Eucharist:
Guercino, Jesus and the Samaritan Woman at the Well (1641)I’m an Anglican who is very sympathetic to Catholicism and I’ve a question regarding the Real Presence. A verse frequently used in defence of this doctrine is John 6:52-57.
“The Jews therefore strove among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” Then Jesus said unto them, “Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you. Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is meat indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, dwelleth in me, and I in him. As the living Father hath sent me, and I live by the Father: so he that eateth me, even he shall live by me.”
However, it seems that in John’s Gospel there is a pattern of people having difficulties with the Lord’s teachings by taking Him too literally.
In John 3, Jesus tells Nicodemus that he must be born again, and Nicodemus, misunderstanding the metaphor asks “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter the second time into his mother’s womb, and be born?”
In John 4, Jesus tells the Samaritan woman of living water and she replies “Sir, thou hast nothing to draw with, and the well is deep: from whence then hast thou that living water? Art thou greater than our father Jacob, which gave us the well, and drank thereof himself, and his children, and his cattle?”
In John 8, Jesus says “If ye continue in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed; And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” And His audience answers him “We be Abraham’s seed, and were never in bondage to any man: how sayest thou, Ye shall be made free?” Again, Jesus is speaking of spiritual bondage to sin here, not actual enslavement.
Why shouldn’t we take John 6 as being part of this pattern?
If you’ve addressed this objection elsewhere, I’m happy to read a link.
In fact, I had a post related to this question a few months ago, but it wasn’t specific to John’s Gospel, and I want to say a few things that I didn’t say there. First of all, I think that Cale is right to see a parallel between John 3:4, John 4:11-12, and John 8:33 on the one hand, and John 6:52 on the other. In all four cases, we have crowds taking Jesus’ comments literally. I’d add a fifth case as well: John 2:19-21.
But there are two important difference between John 6 and those other four cases:
|Jacob Jordaens, Christ Instructing Nicodemus (17th c.)|
In John 2, John 3, John 4, and John 8, Jesus uses imagery that His audience immediately takes literally:
- In John 2:19, Jesus uses the image of the Temple to describe Himself. In John 2:20, the people have immediately mistaken this to mean the Temple of Solomon.
- In John 3:3, Jesus talks about the need to be born again. Nicodemus immediately assumes that this means a physical rebirth, and is confused (John 3:4).
- In John 4:13-14, Jesus describes Himself as Living Water. The woman He’s speaking to immediately thinks He’s referring to literal water (John 4:15).
- In John 8:32, Jesus says that to the crowd that the truth will set them free. They immediately protest that they’re not in bondage to anyone, and Jesus has to explain what He means by freedom (John 8:33). Likewise, when He speaks about who their Father/father is, they respond as if He’s speaking of biological fatherhood.
The people think that He is referring to literal bread, but they don’t think that He’s referring to Himself. Their response is (John 6:34), “Lord, give us this bread always.”
So He approaches it a second time, explaining that He’s referring to Himself. This culminates in John 6:41, in which He says, “I am the Bread which came down from Heaven.”
The crowd still doesn’t take Him to literally mean that His Flesh is Bread. They take the saying figuratively, and their shock is instead at the implication that He is saying that He came from Heaven. They say (John 6:42) “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How does he now say, ‘I have come down from Heaven’?” Notice that in the way that they have reframed it, they’ve disregarded the “Bread” reference entirely, assuming it to be metaphorical.
So Jesus addresses it a third time. This time, He emphasizes the explicitly Eucharistic aspect, in a way that is virtually unavoidable (John 6:48-51):
I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread which comes down from heaven, that a man may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.
It’s only at this point that they take Him literally, after He’s presented the same teaching three different ways.
So that’s the first difference. Here, you don’t just have some naive overly-literal crowd assuming that Jesus must mean everything literally. You have Jesus hammering this point over and over until the people finally take Him at His word. The second difference is how He responds to them taking Him literally:
|Carl Heinrich Bloch, Woman at the Well (19th c.)|
Let’s look at those other four cases again. I pointed out above that in John 2, John 3, John 4, and John 8, the audience immediately takes Jesus literally. Well, in each of those cases, Jesus (or John) quickly clarifies that this isn’t what He meant:
- In John 2:19-20, Jesus doesn’t correct their confusion. Later, they’ll use a distorted version of His words to condemn Him to Death (Mt. 26:61; Mk. 14:58), ironically fulfilling what He actually meant in the prophesy. But even here, where Jesus is silent, John immediately notes (John 2:21) that Jesus meant His Body, not the literal Temple of Solomon.
- When Nicodemus takes being born again to be a reference to a physical rebirth (John 3:4), Jesus immediately corrects Him, explaining that He doesn’t mean it literally, but as a spiritual rebirth (John 3:5-8).
- When the woman at the well mistakes Jesus to be speaking about water in an earthly sense (John 4:11-12), He corrects her by revealing that He is the Messiah. She gets the implications of this, and goes into the city to proclaim Him as Christ. John points out that she left her water jar behind at the well (John 4:28), showing that she figured out that what He meant by Living Water.
- In John 8:33, when the people assume that Jesus is talking about physical slavery, He immediately corrects them to say that He’s talking about spiritual slavery (John 8:34-38). He does the same thing with being a physical v. spiritual descendant of Abraham in this passage.
As a result, nobody takes the overly-literal position of Nicodemus, the woman at the well, or the crowds in John 2 or John 8. There’s no room to, because Jesus (or the Apostle John) clarified His meaning.
As we just saw in the prior point, Jesus’ response in John 6 is the polar opposite. Instead of getting the people to take Him less literally, He keeps pushing them to take Him more literally. So finally, as we saw, the people come to take Him literally, and are shocked.
So the shocked question in John 6:52 is “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” And here, if it was like John 2, John 3, John 4, and John 8, we should see Jesus immediately clarifying His meaning, to show that He doesn’t mean it literally.
|Maurycy Gottlieb, Christ preaching at Capernaum (1879)|
And He does clarify His meaning, but He does so by doubling down on the literalism (John 6:53-58):
Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats me will live because of me. This is the bread which came down from heaven, not such as the fathers ate and died; he who eats this bread will live for ever.
His language is even more strongly literal after He’s challenged on than before. It’s 180 degrees opposed to how He responds in every instance in which He’s using figurative language.
Basically, in John 2, John 3, John 4, and John 8, we have people taking Jesus literally, and Him immediately saying (in essence), “You misunderstand: I mean this figuratively.” In John 6, we have people taking Jesus literally, and Him saying (in essence), “Yes. Now what are you going to do about it?”
This becomes even clearer in the verses following. After Jesus has emphasized (for the fourth time now) that He means this literally, His disciples say, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” (John 6:60). Jesus then presses them on it again, and John 6:66 says that “After this many of his disciples drew back and no longer went about with him.” Then, Jesus confronts the Twelve, and presses them on it (John 6:67): “Will you also go away?”
He could scarcely make it clearer that He meant this literally, and that it’s an essential part of Christianity, such that rejection of it is rejection of Him.
Now there are several other reasons that could be added: the testimony of the Early Church Fathers about what this passage meant; the connections between this passage and Passover, the manna, the Jewish sacrificial system, the feeding of the five thousand, and the Last Supper; etc. But Cale confined his question to the structure of John’s Gospel, and I have done so in my response.
Hopefully, that shows the two major reasons: in the other cases, the people just assume that Jesus is speaking literally, and He (or John) quickly explains otherwise. In John 6, their starting assumption is that it’s not literal, until Christ leaves them no room to take it figuratively.